A Walk Through History Along the Caoling Trail

The Caoling Historic Trail, which offers some of Taiwan’s most spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, provides hikers with a rare glimpse into Yilan County’s early Chinese colonization. 

The Caoling Historic Trail (草嶺古道) is over two centuries old. The path, which today is 10 kilometers long and crosses the border between New Taipei City and Yilan, started as a messenger path for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Later, Chinese immigrants and officials developed a complex network of routes connecting Tamsui and Yilan throughout the 19th century.  

In recent years, officials and volunteers have retraced these old networks to rediscover Taiwan’s early cultural roots. They’ve turned the rediscovered paths into a series of hiking trails completed in 2018. The central government has dubbed these trails the Danlan Old Trail (淡蘭古道), with dan (淡) representing Tamsui (淡水, danshui) and lan (蘭) standing for Yilan (宜蘭). The Caoling Historic Trail is part of this system. Compared with some other paths, it has more remaining relics from the Qing era. 

Huang Da-feng, chief of the Tourism Planning Division of New Taipei City Government’s Tourism and Travel Department, explains that three main routes from Tamsui to Yilan were developed in the 19th century. Tea traders often used the southernmost trail, while the middle trail tended to be taken by settlers from mainland China. The northern paths, including the Caoling Historic Trail, were near the coast and commonly traversed by Qing officials and soldiers. Qing colonists began work on the trail, which involved carving through mountains to reach Yilan, in 1807.  

The trail offers spectacular views that make the walk worthwhile.

Once up and running and sanctioned by the Qing court, the Caoling Historic Trail became Taiwan’s most frequented mountain path, according to the Ministry of Culture. Huang says officials and soldiers needed to be near the sea to guard against ravaging pirates, while the trail was also crucial in quelling multiple rebellions. In 1812, the Qing dynasty set up Kavalan Prefecture, which was situated in modern-day Yilan. The trail was used for deliveries of mail and official documents between Tamsui and Kavalan.  

Tommy Lee, a volunteer with the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area Administration (NYCNSAA), notes that traders also used the trail to get to Yilan, for example to exchange needles for deerskins with indigenous people. Bandits would sometimes lurk in the forest as well, hoping to ambush wealthy travelers, says Lin Yu-shih, an officer with the administration. “It used to be very dangerous,” she notes.  

On a sultry day in June, I began the hike at the trail’s northern entry point in Yuanwangkeng Water Park (遠望坑親水公園) near Fulong Beach in New Taipei City. The park offers verdant terraced fields, wooden pavilions for shelter, and a lotus pond surrounded by mountains. It was my second time hiking this trail, which takes a moderately fit person about three to four hours to walk.  

While Caoling Historic Trail is uphill, it’s not steep, and the average person would find it a relatively easy hike. But there are no roads or stores along the way, so you need to stock up on water and food. Lighting fires, cooking, and camping are prohibited along the way. There’s also no lighting along the path, so be sure to finish the hike before it gets dark. Storms and mist roll in from the sea, and the weather can be highly unpredictable, so you would be wise to bring rain gear.  

I set forth into the forest along a narrow concrete path next to a bubbling brook. As I left Yuanwangkeng Water Park behind, chirps from cicadas and other insects gradually grew louder. I noticed a profusion of butterflies flitting from leaf to leaf on the trees – a black and white paper kite butterfly, a great orange tip, and a black and turquoise common bluebottle. Along the trail, I also spotted several birds, including a Taiwan blue magpie in the trees and a green, red, and blue Taiwan barbet. Lee says you can often also glimpse other birds, such as crested serpent eagles, grey treepies, and Eurasian kingfishers, along the way. An exhibition at the Dali Visitors’ Center at the trail’s southern end describes how pangolins and muntjacs (a kind of small deer) can be found in the trail’s surroundings. 

A few signs are scattered along the trail warning of attacks from Tigerhead bees, otherwise known as Asian giant hornets, the world’s largest. Their sting has been compared to a hot nail driven into the flesh. Signs in English and Chinese warn travelers not to throw away wrappers from sweet snacks, as they attract hornets, and that perfume and cologne should be avoided. Travelers are also urged to keep their eyes and ears open for – and keep their distance from – hornet nests.  

Boldly quell the mist 

The first sign of the early Qing presence I encountered wasn’t marked on the map. It was a small, red-tiled shrine on the side of the path with the characters 百姓公 (baixinggong), which can be translated loosely as “common people’s temple.”  

Annie Tai, an officer with the NYCNSAA, explains that these kinds of shrines, commemorating mainland migrants who came to Taiwan alone and died without their families with them, are scattered across Taiwan. Tai says this particular shrine refers to victims of a conflict between two groups of early Han immigrants, one from Zhangzhou and one from Quanzhou, both in Fujian Province. Their rivalry reached a peak in 1850 and only subsided after 1860. “The temple is to let them rest in peace,” Tai says. 

Commander Liu Mingdeng is said to have inscribed the four characters 雄鎮蠻煙 (boldly quell the wild mists) on this large rock formation.

The path turned away from the brook, and I followed stone stairs upwards into more woods. I wore ordinary sneakers – no special hiking boots were needed, but the damp stones were slippery, and I had to tread carefully. Trees with lush tree ferns sprouting from their boughs hung over the pathway. 

I then reached the Qing-era Xiongzhenmanyan Monument (雄鎮蠻煙碑), the largest stone inscription in Taiwan listed as a Grade 3 historic site, meaning it’s considered to be of some merit but is not yet qualified as a monument, despite its name.  

In 1867, a Hunan-born Taiwan regional commander called Liu Ming-deng was inspecting the trail. He was traveling to Yilan along the winding path when he encountered stinging rain and thick mist. This experience made him conscious of the hardships faced by the Han Chinese in developing this part of Taiwan. Liu inscribed four characters (雄鎮蠻煙) with the meaning “Boldly quell the wild mists,” on a huge stone lying on the mountain’s flank to encourage travelers encountering hardships on the journey and frighten mountain demons. Farther up is a picnic area with a wooden pavilion and restrooms. 

Eventually, the forest flanking both sides of the trail gradually turned into cliffs covered in silver grass. Looking ahead, another wooden pavilion could be seen in the distance. The trail’s highest point was in sight, but before I reached it, I arrived at the Tiger Inscription, a single character inscribed onto a rock. I stopped to admire the graceful calligraphy.  

When Liu arrived at this point on the trail, he was surrounded by such strong wind and fog that he could not determine the right direction. As the story goes, Liu impulsively picked up a piece of silver grass and drew 虎 (hu) for “tiger,” inspired by a line from the I Ching (易經), or Book of Changes, that says, “Clouds obey the dragon. Winds obey the tiger.” Liu believed depicting a tiger might suppress the wind and make it safe for people to travel through the area. The character was inscribed on stone and is also listed as a Grade 3 historic site. 

Tiger Inscription.

At Caoling’s highest point, hikers are rewarded with the trail’s most stunning views: sweeping panoramas of the vast Pacific Ocean surrounding Guishan Island (龜山島), also known as Turtle Island, along with woody cliffs that drop dramatically to the shore. 

There’s also an Earth God Shrine (土地公廟), built in 1925, with bunches of flowers freshly placed on either side. In front of it stands a boundary tablet that marks the dividing line between New Taipei and Yilan counties. The shrine is said by locals to protect passing travelers. 

Every November, the surrounding silver grass blossoms with white wispy featherlike flowers. The NYCNSAA has held an annual Silver Grass Season Festival every November since 2002 to raise awareness about the Caoling Historic Trail while offering activities such as guided tours. 

I stayed on the path as it left the silver grass cliffs and descended downward into more forest. Eventually, I reached a site labeled “Remains of an old inn” (客棧遺址), where a popular tavern for travelers to rest once stood. At first glance, not much can be seen aside from a modern stone wall, but if you look carefully at the undergrowth, you can see some of it covers old stones. A ginger tea stand is set up for visitors during the annual festival. 

Finally, I passed a coffee shop and continued on the forest trail, which eventually flattened out. The trail’s end is marked by the stately Dali Tiengong Temple (大里天公廟). Facing the Pacific Ocean, this temple is devoted to the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝), also known as Yudi. The Jade Emperor is the supreme deity in Chinese folk religion. 

At the Dali Visitors’ Center at this endpoint in Dali Village, Lee and Tai showed me an exhibit devoted to silver grass that’s been closed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It introduces the growth of silver grass in the area and how it can be used in everyday life, even describing its potential for use as a biofuel. A replica of the Tiger Inscription stands in front of the center’s gates for visitors to make rubbings as souvenirs. 

The charmingly quaint Dali Railway Station (大里火車站) is almost an attraction itself. The small station and railway lines are about 10 meters from the sea. Some prefer to take the train to this station and hike along the trail from its southern entry point, as you can swim at Fulong Beach afterward. However, walking southward along the trail towards Yilan, as I did, is much more scenic. 

Getting There and Away

Via car: There are two small parking lots near the Yuanwangkeng Water Park at the trail’s northern entry point. There are also parking lots at the southern end of the trail at the Dali Visitors’ Center. 

Via public transport: To get to the trail’s northern entry point, you must first take a train to Fulong. Taxis usually wait outside the station, and I found that taking a taxi to the park was the quickest option. The ride cost about NT$200. For those who wish to take a bus from Fulong Station to Yuanwangkeng, the F831, 791, and F823 buses on weekdays and an extra tourist bus on weekends stop at scenic spots. 

To get to the trail’s southern entry point, take a train to Dali.